By David Smith. Posted in Ambient, Analysis and Opinion, Classical, Dance, Drone, Electronic, Experimental, Jazz, Post-Rock, Techno, Vital Albums, World | No Comments »
Here is my top 20 music releases for 2015, with no claim that they are somehow objectively the best or that I listened to everything anyone else did. I have found things that delighted me on other people’s lists, and the point of the exercise is not to replicate or compete with those lists but to highlight some things you may not have found, things that might delight you. The sequence changed every time I made a shortlist, so take the numbers with a pinch of salt – all of them could be at least plus or minus 5 on a given day.
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Walking alone this evening in an isolated spot in Texan hill country, dusk falling, a deer flashes across my path and halts a few yards away, quivering. I stop and we trade stares for a while, my stillness not quite assuaging her agitation. A bat passes erratically. A sudden movement behind me catches the corner of my eye, and I turn just as a fawn, perhaps a foot and a half high, almost stumbles into my legs. It looks up at me for a long, fragile moment, and bolts away. The moon grows brighter in a vast sky as the last light fades, the gathering night filled with air and glow and darting life and tensile peace. As I walk on I’m listening to Solstøv by Pjusk, an album not from Texas but from Norway, yet evocatively descriptive of such a night as this, a night of peace and vastness and life and surprise and glory. This walk and this music will now live together in my memory.
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Here it is finally, my list of the best of what I found among 2012’s new releases. (I found a lot of great jazz from before I was born too, but that’s another story.) I no more listened to everything out there than anyone else did, but these are releases from 2012 that I listened to repeatedly and expect to be returning to in 2013 and beyond. The exact order is arbitrary and could change on any given day, though albums are probably roughly in the right quarter of the list. I’ve included at the end an honor roll of another 20 that did not quite make my list but were also greatly enjoyed. After all, I think the main function of lists like this is help folk find things (at least that’s how I use all the other lists out there).
#1 Pjusk – Tele
Norway’s Pjusk have become one my favorite ambient/electronic artists on the strength of three stellar releases. Tele (full review here) takes us deep into the glacial cold of northern Norwegian landscapes – the tracks are themed around layers of rock and ice. Deep in the earth, we are taken on a dark and resonant atmospheric journey that ends in light and life. Creation is not all sunlit beaches, and this release gives us a masterful aural tour of its frozen recesses.
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Kane Ikin – Sublunar
The opening track of Sublunar, Kane Ikin’s debut full length release on 12k, clearly announces the theme and aesthetic of the album, and at the same time sets the standard very high for what follows. The album title places us on the ground; the track title, “Europa”, directs our gaze toward the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (Io, Titan, Hyperion, Rhea, and Oberon are still to come). The track opens with a gently oscillating wash of haze and static, out of which a hesitant, lurching rhythm emerges, sounding like something assembled from various sources and precariously held together by sticky tape and string. The rhythmic effect is somewhat reminiscent of some of Giuseppe Ielasi’s off-kilter beats. A wobbly, ghostly, faintly choral note like a decayed tape recording of music from a decades-old science fiction movie adds a mournful melodic line and a further duality – are we listening to signals from distant moons (as the accompanying video seems to suggest) or the voices of our own past dreams of the future?
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Gareth Dickson - Quite a Way Away
When approaching Gareth Dickson’s new record it seems almost obligatory to dwell for a moment on the fact that it is released on 12k records, a label that does not usually deal with music that has lyrics, let alone releases by singer-songwriters. Dickson has toured extensively as a guitarist with folk singer Vashti Bunyan. His own music combines acoustic guitar finger-picking with an attention to atmosphere, resulting in what one might call ambient folk songs. (You can stream one of his previous albums, the lovely Collected Recordings, here.) Quite a Way Away is certainly something new enough in 12k terms to catch the eye, but it is less of a radical break than it might seem. Listen to the acoustically oriented ambience of Illuha’s recent gem Shizuku, and its inclusion of the spoken word in the form of Japanese poetry, trace the gentle contours of Ballads of the Research Department by The Boats, which also included some singing, and focus on the gently plucked guitar of Kane Ikin’s Contrail (review here), and it will be clear that while Quite a Way Away is something of a shift of genre for 12k, it has a great deal in common with its immediate predecessors in terms of aesthetic. All share a careful hush, a gentle attentiveness to delicate, small, mostly acoustic sounds. Listening back over these releases brought to mind a haiku that appeared on the sleeve of Tetsu Inoue and Carl Stone’s 2001 collaboration pict.soul on the Cycling ’74 label:
The soft breeze that stirs
this vast undulating field
deafens the spider.
Those lines capture for me 12k’s approach to music, music made for the spider rather than for the stadium, inviting the listener to find expansive worlds of sound in the rustle of a soft breeze through grass.
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Kane Ikin - Contrail
The other day I spent a while listening to a couple of free ambient netlabel releases that turned out to be just OK. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many excellent free netlabel releases. These were just not two of them. They brought some interesting sounds together, but lost any sense of the space between them, ending up projecting a kind of mushy hum with various little noises floating stickily in the porridge as it gurgled thickly by. Returning after that listening foray to Kane Ikin’s new EP on 12k records was an exercise in contrasts. Anything that comes out on 12k is going to be painstakingly assembled and mastered, and this recording is no exception. It too works with stretched tones and assorted small sounds, but especially on headphones it opens them up into a delicate and spacious conversation.
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I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.
I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.
[*Addendum – as if purposely to prove this correct, two days after posting this list I discovered the album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by FareWell Poetry; had I heard it a week earlier it would have made my top five.]
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